The Tradesman’s Entrance

About eight weeks ago Austria had a general election (I may have mentioned it). Since then the political parties have been hard at work in Vienna playing political hokey-cokey. Interestingly, in that eight weeks or so, the Austrian state, if reports are to be believed, has carelessly lost 18 billion Euro. Or perhaps 23 billion. But not more than 40 billion, which is a relief. We know they have lost it because before the election, Finance Minister Maria Fekter, bristling with confidence, stood in front of a bank of microphones and assured that Austria had a “null deficit” and possibly even a surplus (I use this same technique in discussions with my bank manager). However, now we are seemingly and irretrievably for the workhouse for a few years, which, if true, is going to play havoc with Vienna’s number 1 city in the world tag and possibly devalue my extensive property holdings on Graben and Kohlmarkt.

Nationalratswahl 08: Wahldiskussion der Spitzenpolitikerinnen
Austria’s iron Lady

Fekter has the kind of bossy demeanour that evokes a private education and reminds me of posh girls at university. The ones that couldn’t dance, invited people round for a Sunday roast, even as students, and turned up the collars on their mainly stripey shirts. Yet in truth she is a grammar school girl made good with the nickname “Schottermitzi” – Gravel Mary (her parents made a fortune in the gravel pit and transport business). She is a disruptive figure, of course; a hardliner on asylum and immigration and with the kind of attitude that if you don’t have a job or are poor there must be something wrong with you. Clearly, someone has told her that to be successful in politics, she has to act like a man. Or worse, Margaret Thatcher!”

Talking of milk snatchers, the teachers are threatening strike action because the government wants new teachers (from 2019) to work an extra 2 hours a week in the classroom (they now do about 22 hours). Although the new regulations will only apply to new teachers, that’s new teachers, the current teaching union is horrified at the prospect of children getting more teaching time and upsetting their unaffected members, because they are old teachers. Altogether now in case you missed it, old teachers.

Potentially this will agitate the “social contract” (an informal deal amongst state employees not to strike in return for guaranteed jobs and pensions – my interpretation anyway). But the whole sorry saga is the worst of Austria – although commonplace elsewhere – and a perfect example of political polarisation brought about by the dominance of two political parties with no desire to crush vested interests and reform. In the meantime, as the fat unionists and weak politicos trade verbal slaps (drink wine in the Heurige and reassure each other their respective jobs are safe), the kids intellectually starve and the people who pay the bill piss in the wind.

Closer to home, we had a problem with our gas pipes, on a Friday, the day before an Austrian public holiday. We phoned Wien Energie who dispatched their emergency team (a very relaxed man in an umarked white van) who after sucking air through his teeth and giving us some numbers for good takeaway, inevitably shut everything down and told us that everything had to be thoroughly checked before it could be used again. But it is the weekend, I protested, I usually start drinking in half and hour!

Fortunately, we managed to get a plumber to come out and speak to us. I say speak. You know when you live in a foreign country when you realise your vocabulary reaches the point of exhaustion. This can have dangerous repercussions in the presence of a medical professional (dentists are entertaining too) or the police. But in my experience it is dealing with tradespeople that can be most linguistically distressing. My knowledge of spoken German is and never will be perfect but even now I am sometimes astonished that I seem incapable of saying simple things, although I am equally amazed that some things flow off the tongue with the eloquence and effectiveness of a weasely politician.

It is the same when I go in to a DIY store here – (I would rather not but we moved back in 2012 and there was a lot of stuff to be baffled by). The language, or specific linguistic genre (vocabulary) of building and home improvement, is largely inaccessible in a foreign tongue – it is mostly too specialist for your general language enthusiast. Okay, a hammer is a hammer, and a shovel is a shovel. But seeking deep in your Wortschatz for “rawlplug” or “skirting board” is largely useless. Fortunately, my communicative incapacity is nowadays mitigated by the omnipresent smartphone. I simply mosey into a store confident and cocksure (or is that the sauna?) and, with a picture on my screen as my guide, say, “Ich brauche dass bitte!”

The gas leak came after a summer of problems with our new boiler. My contention these last few years is that when I was young things didn’t work that well, especially heating systems in the UK. Moreover, when I was young, 2013 REALLY was the future. By now we should be enjoying what Keynes called “leisure” whilst perfected machines assume the tiresome burden of working and mundane existence. Instead we fret and stress about flawed shit that has the temperament of a love-struck teenager, whilst resigning ourselves to a session of self-flagellation for our concomitance in this universal conspiracy of ineptitude.

But the lesson is clear that when your boiler is on the blink, living in the number 1 city in the world is not going to save you. No amount of social democracy, high-end culture, community and civic investment, smart city aspirations or wine in the city limits, is going to make that little light come on. Or indeed a plumber show up to fix it.

And so we endured several meetings with the specialist who installed the boiler and another technician who searched for the fault. I marvelled at this predicament, standing in the middle of Europe, at the crossroads of east and west (our cellar) whilst a Croat, an Austrian and a Brit, speaking the language of international German, in a spirit envisaged by the founding members of the EU I am sure, attempted to sort out a fucking pilot light. Naturally, I hovered nearby looking menacing in slippers, chest out, standing on tip toes in an effort to show I wasn’t cowed by their non-inclusive, evasive patter. I chanced on every single utterance in the hope of eliciting a smidgen of reassurance. And I refused to make them coffee.

Anyway, our leak. Our Serbian by birth plumber was polite (he bowed when he introduced himself), was on time and spoke the language of boilers and noxious gases. Gas, he told us, was not dangerous, unless you mixed it with fire. Hmm. More decisively, he informed us that he was licensed by the deliciously named “Gas Commission” in Vienna to check and replace our pipes, and we discussed possible scenarios whilst I nodded with authority and made manlike noises of understanding. Of course he could fix it, he soothed, all I need is that stash you were saving for your skiing holiday. But I need that money, I said. Do you know how much gulasch soup costs up a mountain? He chuckled, knowingly, and it was at the moment I sensed the solution to the Austrian deficit problem…

© RJ Barratt 2013

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